IN 2019, the United Nations issued a statement saying that we only have 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage to our planet by climate change (bit.ly/un_climate).
Today, we live in a traditional linear economic system that follows the “take-make-dispose” principle. We extract materials, process them into a product, use it, and throw it away as waste. As a result, garbage is piling up in landfills and polluting rivers and ocean. Statistics show that the amount of plastic waste produced globally is around 300 million tonnes per year. This does not include textile, food and other types of waste.
The circular economy is a new economic model that aims to produce zero waste. It opposes the current linear model, and closes the loop of product lifecycles by adhering to the principle of “make-use-remake”.
In a circular economy, the life-cycle of a product is extended through reusing, renting and refurbishing and, eventually, materials will be recycled to create further value. Theoretically, adopting a circular model will not only avoid environmental degradation but also let natural ecosystems regenerate while also creating a world with less waste.
The circular economy framework is also advantageous for social and economic development. Today, the global economy only reuses 9% of the 84 billion tonnes of materials consumed annually. If we utilise the world’s resources and energy more efficiently through the circular economy model, we will not only be able to reach the Paris Agreement’s climate target but we can create – according to estimations by existing studies – around six million new job opportunities (bit.ly/circular_jobs) and generate an additional US$2tril (RM8.2tril) for the world economy by 2050.
In addition, vigorous recycling, reusing and refurbishing practices in the manufacturing sector are said to encourage public and private firms to opt for local products, thus benefiting local businesses, entrepreneurs and small-scale farmers.
Nevertheless, transitioning to the circular economy can be accompanied by some trade-offs. For instance, the UN Industrial Develop-ment Organisation has expressed concerns over circular economy approaches that are centred almost completely on environmental and economic performances while overlooking inclusiveness. Low-income countries are thus at risk of being cut off from global supply chains, and they will face difficulties in implementing circular economy strategies given their lower access to technologies and expertise. Basically, experts argue that the circular framework lacks strategies to reduce inequalities and poverty.
To overcome these problems, cross-subsidies must be enhanced between low income and high income countries to accelerate knowledge and technology transfer. One good example is the collaboration between a multinational technology company and local communities in Haiti where it supports the purchase of recycled bottles from local businesses for its ink cartridge production. This initiative has generated over 1,000 new jobs in Haiti and provided educational opportunities as well as healthcare and safety training.
Businesses and industries in Malaysia should start incorporating sustainable strategies into their plans to achieve long-term productivity in an eco-friendly and sustainable manner. At the moment, only 7% of business firms in Malaysia have committed to circular economy practices – the rest are still trying to understand the model’s benefits and risks according to an April 2021 report (bit.ly/circular_malaysia).
Our government can take proactive steps to encourage more businesses to participate by, for example, offering incentives to companies that adhere to circular economic principles.
The environmental and economic benefits and opportunities arising from the circular economy certainly outweigh the disadvantages.
If we are to take the issue of climate change and sustainability seriously, a holistic and multidimensional approach is needed in which we all – from lay people to businesses and policymakers – have to play our roles.
RAYYAN YUNUS , London University College